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Americans were on the road before there were roads. Even in colonial times, when moving was arduous and there weren't many settlements to move to, both new arrivals and native-born Americans moved. The Puritans had no sooner created villages in Massachusetts than they were pushing out onto new farms, setting a pattern in which community "was dashed by transiency." In late-seventeenth-century Virginia, fewer than half of those appearing on county tax lists in one decade were living in the same county ten years later. There was greater stability in New England, but even one-third of its inhabitants moved in a typical decade. Rates of movement like these would turn out to be remarkably constant throughout American history (turnover rates in Boston were about 50 percent per decade in the middle of the nineteenth century, not too different from today).
By the time of the Revolution, settlers were pouring down the Great Wagon Road that ran eight hundred miles along the Appalachians from Philadelphia to Augusta, Georgia. Families established themselves in clearings in the forests and cut down the trees around them, often at great distances from theirnearest "neighbors," if that is the right word for a family a mile down a very rough path. Thousands of applicants would appear whenever a land office opened to allocate parcels in a new area. In the half-century before the Revolution, the population of the southern colonies along the Appalachians was growing explosively, in many areas doubling every decade in spite of high mortality rates. Each year thousands flowed through the Shenandoah Valley heading south, most of them immigrants who had only recently arrived in Pennsylvania. The frontiers of northern New England, upstate New York, and western Pennsylvania were being settled at a similar pace. Not all the native Indians had been subdued by this time, and the Cherokee War of 1760-61 was especially vicious. The grim brutality of the attacks, by both sides, added to the macho "frontier" roughness. But land was an obsession, and people stampeded to claim it. Such activity continued along the frontier as it pushed westward over the next century.
Two hundred years ago migrants traveled at the pace they could walk, along muddy, rock-strewn trails accompanying their wagons-or in some cases crude carts with cross-sections of tree trunks as wheels. Luckier ones moved at the speed they could float or paddle canoes. In the years since, technological improvements have increased our speed, without satisfying our restlessness. They have only made it easier to indulge.
After the Revolution the new federal government, tiny though it was, recognized the importance of opening up new lands through improved transportation. It commissioned a comprehensive survey of roads, published in 1789; a coastal survey followed in 1796, complete with instructions for navigating major ports and harbors. In 1806 Congress appropriated thirty thousand dollars for a Great National Pike, known as the Cumberland Road, to run from Maryland to Ohio; by the time it opened in 1840, it extended all the way to Illinois. State and local governments also enthusiastically promoted infrastructure, first chartering private development companies and then, after the 1820s, frequently bankrolling canals and turnpikes themselves.
The new government's other main expenditures were on land. Territorial expansion held the government's attention from the start, as it fought Indians on the northwest frontier (what is now Ohio) in the 1790s, signing a 1795 treaty in which the British relinquished their claims to the area. An 1819 treaty with Spain, won after an illegal occupation by Andrew Jackson and his army, secured the Florida territory. After violence, the biggest expansion came via the marketplace. Thomas Jefferson, whose main concern as president was to limit the activities of the federal government, had to amend the constitution to allow the purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803. In his most popular act as president, he more than doubled the size of the United States, igniting into full fury American dreams of land ownership. Forty years later President James Polk bullied Mexico into war to provide an excuse for capturing the vast lands of the southwest, from Texas to California. The resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in 1848, increased the size of the republic by another third: just in time for the gold rush, which represented expansionist frenzy at its height. In a single typical lifetime, from 1800 to 1850, the land available for settlement had more than tripled, gold had been discovered at the far end of the continent, and the image of the United States as the land of opportunity was more firmly entrenched than ever.
Water offered this country's first system of roads, for the continent was blessed with enormous stretches of coastline as well as a fantastic system of navigable rivers that proved crucial to opening up its land mass to exploitation. Beginning almost immediately after the Revolution, canals were built in order to perfect the work God had done in making the rivers. No fewer than thirty canal companies were established by 1790. In 1794, a two-mile canal-the nation's first-opened next to the Connecticut River in South Hadley Falls, Massachusetts. During the next half century, these and other companies dug-much of it by hand-almost five thousand miles of canals. Government was also heavily involved, as in New York State's $140-million public-works project that built the 340 miles of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 after nine years of construction. Construction like this was not only necessary for moving settlers west but also for transporting their produce east, making their migrations more lucrative.
It was the refinement of steamboat technology, especially in the 1830s, that definitively opened up so much of this land to the restless. Unlike Huck's raft, which only floated downstream with the flow of the Mississippi, steamboats had considerable power to go upstream as well, depositing people in remote areas. Flatboats and keelboats had taken three or four months to go upriver from New Orleans to St. Louis; steamboats took a week. The utility and excitement of steamboats were unmatched anywhere else in the world, for no other country could apply them so extensively. This new invention allowed boomtowns to spring up all along the extensive rivers of the Midwest, and the new country's love affair with transportation technology was in full bloom.
Sam Clemens's Missouri was filled with these towns. For each one that thrived, others failed; all were subject to the vicissitudes of migration and markets. The Clemens family moved to Hannibal at the end of 1839 because their town of Florida was being abandoned as insufficiently profitable. Although Sam's father never managed to benefit from Hannibal's rapid growth, many others did. The town was a regular steamboat stop, and young Sam was exposed to the gambling, prostitution, violence, duels, even murders, of boomtowns filled with restless young men. Because his father landed a job as the justice of the peace, Sam learned about all this firsthand. Most of all, he saw people on the move. He saw people arriving. Missouri had innumerable new towns, many of them founded on utopian principles of one sort or another. The Mormons, for instance, were living only sixty miles upriver in Nauvoo, Illinois. And he saw people leave. Missouri was the gateway to the west, and a significant portion of Hannibal's "permanent" population left for California when gold was discovered. One of Sam's first jobs as a young man, which he liked as much as writing, was that of riverboat pilot, at which he might have continued had the Civil War not stopped traffic on the Mississippi. Like many Americans, Sam Clemens saw this as a dream job: to be constantly on the move, to be paid well for one's work, to be at the forefront of opening up the North American continent. So much did water set the pattern for American transportation that today we still "ship" a package, even when it travels in a large brown truck.
Water travel opened up the great midwest, but it was a cumbersome way to get to the other side of the Continental Divide and the Rockies. It required a passage around Tierra del Fuego that could take six months, or rough portage by canoe over the malarial Panama isthmus. (That did not prevent five hundred ships from leaving Eastern ports for California in 1849, at the height of the gold rush-cramped boxes of stress, disease, and poor nutrition.)
Enter the railroads. Whereas in Europe the new railroads were simply a new means for what Europeans were already doing-bringing coal out of mines, moving from one city to another-in the United States they made all sorts of new activities possible in new areas. They were part of the utopian urge to build a new civilization from the ground up. Rather than being laid alongside existing roads, as in Europe, railroads created new routes to open up the interior of the country. They were used, not to travel between known points, but to discover new ones. They determined where the cities and towns would be. They also generated economic activity, and virtually all the great American fortunes of the century had their roots in the railroads. As the engines for the industrial revolution, trains and steamboats appeared to be creative, opening up new possibilities, rather than destructive, as they did in Europe, where they displaced older roads and ways of life. Americans found heroic new uses for European transportation technologies.
The automobile, too, was first invented in Europe, but the United States was quicker-taking only two generations-to develop a way of life centered on this easy new form of movement. From the start the motorcar promised individual mobility. One of its initial draws was the ability to escape what was perceived as immoral and unhealthy cities for restoratives in the countryside. This took two forms: a house in the suburbs, to which the breadwinner could escape each night to be with his family, and weekend escapes even deeper into the countryside. In the three decades after 1920, two thousand state parks and forty thousand motels and tourist courts were created. American restlessness could be satisfied short of a completely new habitation, although cars also symbolized more permanent escape. The American dream of freedom, flight, and starting over received an enormous technological boost. And of course it was men who most embraced the new machines and what they represented.
As we saw with the success of immigrants, though, what appears to be the result of individual consumer choices depended heavily on economic forces and policy choices. These are most obvious, perhaps, in the purchase by General Motors of many city trolley lines in the 1930s (in order to replace them, most often, with buses of its own manufacture). But federal, state, and local governments have encouraged reliance on automobiles too. There have been enormous federal subsidies of highways, peaking in the great interstate highway construction of the 1950s, itself another kind of utopian vision of remaking the country by laying down upon it this abstract new grid of north-south and east-west expressways. The only opposition came from those who feared expansion of the federal government, not from anyone who doubted the virtues of autos and trucks. There is also the longstanding refusal to tax gasoline more than a token amount, which does not nearly cover the social costs of the pollution that results. Our gasoline costs less than bottled water, and about one-third or one-fourth what it costs in most other countries. By some estimates, the United States gives automobiles more than seven times the public subsidies it offers to more cost-effective public transportation. The most prominent historian of the automobile in the United States says that observers in the 1930s claimed "that the private passenger car had won out over mass transit ... because travelers preferred the freedom and convenience it gave them. Other evidence, however, suggests that the promotion of highway transportation by special-interest groups and resulting public policy decisions were perhaps more important to the decline of public transit than consumer choice in a free market." In our imagination the automobile won because of the individual freedom it offered; in reality it had more to do with corporate strategy.
Anyone who wonders what cars and trucks mean to Americans should look at the vehicles' names, which still promise escape and adventure. Some sound speedy and dangerous, like Barracudas, Stingrays, and Tempests, while others refer directly to the frontier: Cimarrons, Mavericks, Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and the notorious exploding Pinto. (European cars, like Mercedes or Volvos, tend to come in sedately numbered series.) Station "wagons" seem descended from the Conestoga. Nissan recently introduced a Frontier pickup. But none capture American sensibilities better than the recent minivans and "sport utility vehicles," each one of them a small environmental disaster. Some of their names merely allude to movement and escape, such as Voyagers, Quests, Explorers, Navigators, Expeditions, and Ventures. Others have explicit wild-west connotations, like Blazers, Caravans, Pathfinders, Pioneers, Tahoes, Trackers, even Rodeos, Wranglers, Cherokees, Navahos, Laredos, Silverados, and Yukons. The newest entry is the Dodge Durango. (In Japan, the same vehicles have names like Town Cube, Gravel Express, and Utility Wizard.) And of course there is the Bronco, made notorious by O. J. Simpson when he demonstrated just how deeply he believed in escape. The police could have pursued him in a Ranger. A few push the flight theme beyond the borders of the United States, to places-other regions (Outbacks, Safaris) or outer space (Windstars, Aerostars)-still thought to be frontiers. There is irony in housewives and middle managers driving to the local mall in such vehicles. The one thing the preposterous names never express is what the vehicles are actually used for: you'll never see one called the Commuter, Kid-hauler, Mallstar, or the Middle Manager (although there is a candidly named Suburban).
Car advertisements tap into American fantasies of flight through settings on the tops of mesas, the edges of canyons, or empty country roads, inevitably out West. In one, the car travels through someone's purely imaginary landscape, drawn in rough cartoon style. Even wimpy small cars try to get into the act. A recent commercial for the Chevy Malibu boasts, "This is not a country for wimps. We invented the cowboy, the jawbreaker, and the quarterback blitz." The Malibu, too, can be tough and aggressive, since it is the "equivalent of Rocky Balboa." It is almost impossible to find an ad for a sport utility vehicle that is not set in rugged mountains.
Even the counterculture, while rejecting some aspects of American materialism, embraced the supposed freedom of the car culture. Beats were "on the road," usually heading to California, often in a stolen vehicle. There was no purpose or destination; the road itself was the point, a place to strip away nonessentials and find one's true self, or perhaps to forget oneself in the cosmic rhythm of the wheels. Ken Kesey's magical bus roamed about, spewing forth diesel pollution as well as psychedelic fantasies, its destination sign merely saying "Further." Novel upon novel, movie after movie, has been set on highways, celebrating automobiles and the open road.
Americans' reluctance to wear seat belts seems to confirm that they see their automobiles as small islands of autonomy and freedom. In countries like Canada, Britain, and Germany, virtually all drivers wear their belts, but in the United States barely 60 percent do-with the rest actually breaking the law in forty-nine states. My own father, who used to wear seat belts religiously, declared when his state passed its mandatory seat belt law that he would never wear his belt again. And, perversely, he hasn't. Everyone knows that seat belts save lives. So it must be their symbolic connotations that Americans dislike. They remind each of us of the dangers of driving, and of our own potential mortality. But if this were all, citizens of other countries might also dislike them (although it is possible that an American cult of youth leads us to deny death more fervently). Even more, I suspect, seat belts now symbolize government intervention in our little automotive free spaces, much as gasoline taxes do. Restricting our migratory impulses is un-American.
Excerpted from Restless Nation by James M. Jasper Copyright © 2000 by James M. Jasper. Excerpted by permission.
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